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Hiram Ulysses Grant’s life started as all great men’s lives start, ordinarily and unassumingly. In Point Pleasant, Ohio, Grant was born to Jesse and Hannah Grant, two common religious and hard-working people who would go on to have 5 more (less important) children. At a young age he took to his father’s business as an apprentice tanner; although it earned him a decent wage, he loathed the work and environment and quickly decided once he was an adult, it would not be the life for him (Miller Center).
He was not overly educated at a young age, and as with many children that age schooling bored him. What he lacked in a desire to be formally educated, he more than made up for with his horsemanship skills, a very critical skill in this time and place in history. This skill set made an impact later in life, when his father enrolled him in the United States Military Academy at West Point, where as in his younger years, performed less than admirably in the common subjects of his education, however, his skill with horses was his saving grace, as he was unmatched in that area. He was thought to be a shoe-in for a spot in the cavalry, but the coveted position passed him by and he was ultimately assigned to the infantry (Miller Center).
In the 1840s the United States Army was still near its humble beginnings, and Grant found himself assigned to the 4th Infantry at the Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis, Missouri. It was here when Grant first met the woman who would become the love of his life. Julia Dent was the sister of Grant’s then-roommate Frederick Dent, who had grown up near St. Louis, and Grant would accompany him on trips back to his home. Sadly Grant had to wait before being able to declare his intentions with Julia, as the Mexican War started, and he was called away (Miller Center).
With his regiment moving to Texas, Lieutenant Grant spent the next two years fighting, and being cited for bravery by his superiors; after being appointed Quartermaster, he gained valuable logistics experience. Though he had many successes in war, Grant did not glory in it, and openly mourned his fallen brothers-in-arms and lamented the waste that war creates. The end of war found Grant being able to live his dream of marrying Julia, although soon he was reassigned to the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon and California. He hated being separated from his family, and his problems didn’t stop there as he ran into money problems, and by many accounts began to drink in excess; this no doubt contributed to his sudden resignation in 1854 (Miller Center).
Returning to his family, his problems seemed to follow him back home, as he found it difficult to make a living, going through half a dozen jobs that did not pan out. On a particularly depressing Christmas, he was forced to pawn his timepiece just to get his children, who now numbered four, their presents. By 1860 he was forced to go to his father for help, working for his younger brother in a tannery located in Illinois. While the country’s future took a disastrous turn, it provided Grant with a career that he could excel in, and the Union needed men with experience. After being able to whip a particularly undisciplined regiment into shape, he won the respect of his men and was subsequently promoted to Brigadier General (Friedel and Sidey, 2006).
Although Grant was finally in his element, the North in general didn’t have an easy road ahead of them. The confederates were mainly in their own territory, and fighting (in their mind) for their freedom. The Union had the tough task of rooting out the enemy in a large territory, and the South had the benefit of strong support from the citizens and started with superior military commanders. The North still had a strong advantage with better weapons, more soldiers, and the crucial blockades to the Confederates supply lines (Miller Center).
Unfortunately for the Union, that advantage didn’t equal easy victories, and the war dragged on. The inefficiency of the Northern military leadership did not match up well against the drive the Southerners had and the fervor with which they fought. This continuing trend of poor military leaders in the North is what eventually led to Lincoln turning to Grant as the man who would lead them to victory (Miller Center).
Grant proved that he was exactly the man to do that soon afterwards. In 1861 he led 3,000 troops into a battle that would eventually come out as a draw, but he showed a willingness to fight, and said later of the lesson he learned that day, “I never forgot,” he wrote, “that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.” (qtd. in Miller Center). He continued to build upon his legend by capturing two Confederate forts in Tennessee, earning himself both the moniker “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and a well-earned promotion to Major General (Miller Center).
His good standing with the people did not last long as he was blamed for the tragic loss known as the Battle of Shiloh. A clever early morning ambush by Confederate forces pushed Grant and the Union line back, resulting in many soldiers being taken as Prisoners of War (POW). Grant still showed his tenacity when he managed to hold his position, and arrange for a counterattack the following day where they gave as good as they got. That being said, the citizens placed all the lost lives of those troops squarely at the feet of Grant (Miller Center).
Lincoln understood the worth of such a man however, and instead of feeding him to the political wolves, stood by him and reminded everyone of Grant’s worth and prowess. His calm demeanor during battle was a far cry from the earlier Union military commanders. He was decisive, concise, and knew the dangers of micromanaging his troops, trusting his junior officers to carry out his direct orders. Lincoln put it simply when asked, “I can’t spare this man–he fights.” That alone spoke volumes of Grant’s predecessors (Friedel and Sidey, 2006).
Grant didn’t let his momentum slow either, after being appointed command over the District of Tennessee, he moved quickly to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, the location of which allowed him to not only gain a high defensible position, but also cut off the Confederate stranglehold that had been on the Mississippi River since the beginning of the war. This was such a decisive turn in the war, and after the pivotal, devastating blow was struck, Lincoln declared “Grant is my man, and I am his” when hearing of the victory (Miller Center).
It was not long before Grant had the entire Western Theater of the war under his command. After more decisive victories in eastern Tennessee, Grant was the undisputed war hero, not only leading and shaping victories, but his men as well as all his generals earned their reputations as well. By 1864 Lincoln had named Grant the de facto commander of all Union forces, and he was transferred to Washington, DC to oversee the war effort. Grant, being the man of action that he was, hated being too far from the battlefield and instead joined up with General Meade and started the grueling campaign where battle after battle between Grant and Robert E. Lee raged across the countryside. Such huge losses were incurred curing this campaign, that grant was given an additional nickname by the press, “The Butcher” (Miller Center).
Grant ignored the murmurings of the peanut gallery and continued taking the fight to Lee, leading to victories so overpowering, that the South eventually started losing the will to continue fighting. This all culminated into Grant trapping the Confederate Army west of Richmond and forcing Lee to surrender on April 9th, 1865. Lee’s surrender to Grant was basically the unofficial end to the war. Grant wrote out magnanimous terms of surrender that would prevent treason trials (Friedel and Sidey, 2006).
In only 4 short years, Grant had gone from tannery clerk to a living legend, a hero in the flesh that had enough war mythos surrounding him to endear him to the entire nation. In 1866 he was named the General of the Armies, a rank that had not been obtained since George Washington himself. He now had the public eye, and the respect of the country, which makes it far from surprising that it was not long after that he would become a presidential candidate (Miller Center).
During the Reconstruction period, Grant attempted to work alongside Lincoln’s abysmal successor Andrew Johnson. However, he was not a fan of Johnson’s policies, and a dispute arose between the two when Grant refused to back him during one of his many struggles with Congress. He moved more and more towards the Radical’s viewpoint, wanting more protection for recently freed slaves, and although he had little to no interest in being president himself, his popularity lead to him being virtually unable to deny the people (Miller Center).
In 1868, Grant’s nomination was nothing more than a formality. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana was declared to be his running mate and the Democrats chose Horatio Seymour, the then governor of New York, to run against them. The 46-year-old Grant did not campaign himself, which was usual during that day and age, but he was easily the most popular candidate. He won the Electoral College vote by a nearly 3 to 1 margin over Seymour. Attributed in no small part to the newly enfranchised Southern blacks in some reconstructed states, he won the popular vote by 300,000 (Miller Center).
Near the end of his first term in office, Grant’s popularity was still high, but over the past four years a small part of the Republican Party had grown tired of his policies, and branched off to become the Liberal Republicans. They mostly just stood against Grant’s support for the African Americans and the Federal Government intervention in the South (Miller Center).
The Liberal Republicans basically wanted the return of white rule in the south, and nominated a man of their own, Horace Greely, as their candidate. The Democrats, knowing that they could profit off of the Republican split, immediately made their support of Greely known, and he became their candidate as well. However, Greely couldn’t seem to keep his issues straight, and ended up switching his stories and policies too often for people to feel that he was a stable voting choice. This led to Grant winning his reelection, and brought with it a Republican majority into both houses of Congress (Miller Center).
Grant declared in 1875 that he had no interest in running for a third term, and proved it when he played virtually no role in the next election at all, leaving the election too close to be decided. This in turn led Congress to negotiating a compromise to decide which votes counted, and eventually they ruled in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, who became Grant’s successor. During all of this, Grant seemed more concerned with maintaining a fair election and keeping the peace to facilitate and orderly transfer or power (Miller Center).
When Grant finally stepped down, he could do so knowing that even though the country had a long way to go, he had set it on course to survive, and one day thrive. With this in mind, he took Julia and fulfilled a lifelong passion for world travel, touring across many different countries, and always being received as the hero and great man that he was (Miller Center).
Upon returning from his trips to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Grant was received well, his popularity still ringing strongly throughout the citizens of the United States of America. He even sought to reclaim the Republican nomination for president. Alas, he had made too many enemies inside of his own party, and instead James A. Garfield earned the nomination instead (Miller Center).
It seemed that misfortune was all the future had in store for Grant after that, starting with a financial disaster that ended with most of his assets being lost due to a scam by his son’s company. The former President and war hero now had to rely on the generosity of his friends as he had no money of his own (Miller Center).
As if that wasn’t enough, he then discovered he was dying of throat cancer. A lifetime of smoking had finally taken its toll on him. Grant was not an emotionally weak man though, he did not allow his recent misfortunes to change the man he had always been, and he approached this fight with cancer with the same fervor and unwillingness to give up that he had approached every fight before this. His final act was to write his memoirs, an act that took all of his time and energy to fully commit to (Miller Center).
He did not do this out of any egotistical need to tell his story, but instead because he knew that he was not leaving his family the legacy they deserved, and did not want his wife and children to also live off of the charity of their friends. He spent his last days at his home, scrawling out his epic tale, and actually managing to finish it just before his death on July 23rd, 1885. It was published by none other than Mark Twain, and its huge success took care of his family for the rest of their lives, accomplishing his last self-issued mission. His funeral was fit for a man of his stature, and it drew a million and a half citizens from all over the country to come and commemorate his life and what a simple tanner’s son had managed to accomplish. Ulysses S. Grant still lies in Grant’s Monument in Manhattan, to this day and is the largest tomb in North America (Miller Center).
Grant’s memory and legend lives on even now, almost 130 years after his death, and he is still widely regarded as one of the better presidents to have had the honor of leading this great nation. Scholars still argue that even though he didn’t make tremendous strides toward the future as many presidents did before him, and have since, he is credited with keeping this country together after the debacle that was Andrew Johnson, and doing that in only two terms is no small thing (C-Span).
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